By Rob Pegoraro
The Washington Post
Wireless phone service is one of the great bargains of the modern age. When
The Post began its annual comparison of cellular calling plans in 1998, $40
bought a lousy 100 minutes of talk time a month. Now that same bill will
provide 600 peak minutes, plus unlimited night and weekend minutes -- about
24,000 in all, if you must know.
No other telecom service has seen this sort of ballooning value -- not
Internet access, not landline phones and certainly not cable or
satellite TV. But most other telecom markets don't benefit from the
intense competition of the wireless industry, with five strong,
nationwide carriers (down from six since Cingular's purchase of AT&T
Wireless) out to eat each other's lunch.
But wireless phone service can't be purchased on price alone -- first, you
need to decide which carrier to go with, since not all offer the same
service. It helps to start with the right questions.
How much time do you spend in rural areas? Any wireless carrier should
be able to give you a sturdy signal in the mall or at a downtown
intersection -- digital coverage has become almost ubiquitous in most
metropolitan areas. But what about 30 miles out of town? What about a
vacation house four hours' drive away?
This is why the first thing you should look at on a carrier's Web site
is its coverage map. While these generally can't tell you about the
annoying dead zones that only last half a mile on the highway, they
should indicate where a carrier just doesn't have service at all.
How important is it that the phone work at all times? There's no
common standard for wireless service, save the oldest technology of
them all -- analog cellular. Analog is what gave cell phones a bad
name: It kills a phone's battery life, sounds lousy and will run up
massive roaming charges. But as the lowest common denominator, it may
be available where digital service is not.
Only Sprint PCS and Verizon still offer phones that are analog-capable
-- although some of their latest models are digital-only.
Do you ride Metro often? Verizon continues to be the only carrier to
offer service in the underground portions of Metro. Sprint says its
phones can roam on Verizon's signal, but other firms' customers are
shut out -- their phones don't support analog and use a different
digital technology than the Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA)
standard that Sprint and Verizon share.
Do you want to use your phone overseas? Since Cingular and T-Mobile
rely on the Global System for Mobile (GSM) standard widely deployed in
Europe and Asia, their customers can use their phones overseas. But if
you're not planning to make calls back home, it will be far cheaper to
buy prepaid wireless service overseas.
Which carrier do your friends and family use? Many Cingular and
Verizon plans include unlimited calling to other phones on the same
network. Sprint sells that option for $5 a month, and Nextel's Direct
Connect Walkie-Talkie service, thanks to the unlimited usage the
carrier generally allows, offers a rough equivalent. In any of those
cases, you can opt for a cheaper plan if the people you'll talk to
most often will use the same network as you.
Do you want the gadget-iest phone available? If you want a cell phone
that doubles as a handheld organizer, that decision may dictate your
choice of carrier. The two most aggressive marketers of smartphones
are Sprint and T-Mobile, which have been first to sell such popular
models as the Treo 600 (Sprint will be the first carrier to offner
PalmOne's new Treo 650), the Sidekick and Sidekick II, and the new
BlackBerry 7100t. Cingular is a little further behind, followed by
Verizon. Nextel is dead last; it waited until a few weeks ago to offer
its first camera phone, a good two years after the competition.
Do you plan to use your phone to go online? Wireless Web access is no
longer a joke, thanks to improvements in data technology and cellphone
screens. The fastest connections around are the "1X RTT" services
offered by Sprint and Verizon, which top out at almost three times the
speed of a landline modem. Cingular and T-Mobile's "EDGE" and "GPRS"
offerings are a tad slower.
How much do you plan on calling? Offers of unlimited or
might-as-well-be-unlimited night and weekend minutes mean you only
need think about calls between 6 or 7 a.m. and 9 p.m. on weekdays. If
in doubt, get a cheaper plan; you can always switch to a plan with
more minutes, although that may require extending your contract.
Cingular and Sprint have come up with two smart twists on standard
pricing. Cingular lets you carry over unused minutes into the next
month, while Sprint's customers can be automatically bumped to a
higher calling plan if they exceed their included minutes.
In one area, however, the competitive juices of the wireless market
aren't flowing properly: Under-$30 plans, once a commonplace offering
by carriers, have all but died out. If you need a phone only on rare
occasions, look into prepaid service.
This is the equivalent of getting a calling card for your
long-distance use: You buy an allotment of minutes and don't have to
pay again until either the minutes are gone or a certain time has
elapsed, often 90 days. The major carriers, save Sprint, sell prepaid
service, as do such third-party firms as TracFone and Virgin Mobile
(which itself resells Sprint service).
What if you realize you made the wrong call? Whether you wait out your
contract or eat the early-termination fee, you can still leave and
take your number with you, thanks to the "wireless number portability"
policy enacted by the Federal Communications Commission last
year. That's one of the best moves the government has done for
customers lately, giving them yet another way to keep these
Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2004 The Washington Post Company
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